OPERATION SEARCHLIGHT: PLANNING AND EXECUTION OF THE 25th MARCH MASSACRE
It was the operation of a country’s regular army, regarded as one of the finest of the time, to kill its own people, unarmed and from all walks of the society. Peddlers, rickshaw-pullers, homeless, police and paramilitary personnel in their barracks, resident students in their halls, both male and female, military servicemen of Bengali origin, university teachers in their residential quarters, all were targets, and were taken down with utmost sincerity. Operation Searchlight!
Operation Searchlight is one of the few post-WWII military operations which ultimately had been planned fully against the civilians, just to kill a smart percentage of them and scare the rest, the survivors. And none of the victims was anyone from an enemy nation. The army and the genocide-victims all belonged to the very one country, had very one national identity.
The plan was drawn up in early March 1971 by Maj-Gen Khadim Hussain Raza and Maj-Gen Rao Farman Ali, as a result of a meeting between Pakistani army staff on the 22 February.
Senior Pakistani officers in East Pakistan who were unwilling to support heavy offensive on civilians, Lt-Gen Shahabzada Yakub Khan and Vice Adm Ahsan, were relieved of their duties and flown back to West Pakistan. As replacement of the both came Lt-Gen Tikka Khan to take over as chief marshal law administrator of East Pakistan (military zone B) and the state’s governor.
On 17 March, Gen Khadim Hussain Raza was given the go ahead to plan for the crackdown via telephone by Gen Hamid, the then Pakistan Army chief. In the morning of 18 March, Gen Raza and Maj-Gen Rao Farman Ali put the details to paper at the GOC’s office at Dhaka cantonment. The plan was written on a light blue office pad with a lead pencil by Gen Farman containing sixteen paragraphs spread over five pages.
Gen Farman wrote out the operational premises and conditions for success, while Gen Khadim dealt with the distribution of forces and particular tasks of the individual brigades and other units.
Planners took this to consideration that the Bengali officers and other military or paramilitary units will revolt at the onset of operations. To minimize that risk, it was suggested that all Bengali armed units like Police, Riffles (EPR) should be disarmed and the political leadership arrested during their meeting with the President, Gen. Yahya Khan. No operational reserves were earmarked.
Though the draft asked to disarm Police, EPR units, thousands of unarmed Police men and EPR troops were massacred inside Dhaka’s Police lines at Rajarbag and EPR Headquarters at Pilkhana, in Dhaka.
The handwritten plan was read out to Gen Hamid and Lt-Gen Tikka Khan on the 20 March at the flag staff house. Gen Hamid objected to the immediate disarming of regular army Bengali units but approved the disarming of riffles, armed police and other paramilitary formations.
In the initial draft of the massacre plan, Gen Rao Farman suggested that Awami League leaders should be arrested amid the ongoing dialogue with Gen Yahya. But the President refused it for some reason.
After frequent verification and scrutiny, the amended plan was approved and the operational plan was distributed to various area commanders on the 24 and the 25 March daytime, when a group of Pakistani Generals, accompanied by Gen Hamid, Maj-Gen Mittha, the SSG mastermind and mentor, and Col. Saadullah, the principal staff officer, visited the major garrisons via helicopter and personally briefed the various garrison commanders or senior West Pakistani officers on the operation.
Maj-Gen Aboobaker Osman Mittha, as the chief of the elite Special Services Group (SSG), was tasked with the most dramatic chapter of entire plan, the arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Maj-Gen Qamar Ali Mirza and Brig-Gen. Harrison were later flown to Dhaka from West Pakistan to assist Maj-Gen Mittha, who was also tasked with arranging the logistical details. The responsibility seemed difficult because the Sheikh Mujib’s non-cooperation programme was affecting the spontaneity of the military supplies.
Secrecy and Deception
Secrecy was kept at extreme strictness. Only a few junior commissioned officers (JCOs), definitely West Pakistanis, had knowledge about the plan beforehand though fully on a need to know basis.
Some Bengali officers had become suspicious of the ‘all West Pakistani’ officer briefings. Later it showed that some of Bengali officers initiated revolts as a confused advance from their suspicions.
It appeared after the deadly war that followed, that many Bengali officers tactically disobeyed the decoy orders by their West Pakistani superiors and survived apparent assassination plots.
The Operation started on the night of 25 March, 1971, technically from zero hours of 26 March. Dhaka and other garrisons were to be alerted via phone about their zero hour to start their operations.
Gen Farman Ali commanded the forces in Dhaka, while the rest of the province was commanded by Gen Khadim himself. Lt-Gen Tikka Khan and his staff were present in the 31st field command centre to supervise and support the command staff of the 14th division inside Dhaka Cantonment.
To the time of leaving Dhaka for Karachi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto accompanied Gen Tikka Khan inside the cantonment. It is said that Bhutto’s request to inspect a bloodied provincial capital on a military vehicle was turned down by Gen Tikka Khan at that night.